Walmart: Population Four
The first time my mother flees home, I’m with her. We leave the slum under the cover of darkness, hurrying westward on the abandoned freeway. If the wind whips sudden and fierce, if a static ringing fills our ears, we huddle like rodents and wait for the Godstorm to pass. They don’t want us, they want the Bridged.
After a few days of eating jerky, our hopes lift at the sight of a gasless gas station, its green awning advertising candy and hot food, but the little shop sells neither, filled instead with junk from bygone suburbia. Stepping over a bin overflowing with tangled ethernet cords, my mother asks the squat old woman behind the counter if she knows of any Forgotten communities nearby.
“Whatever you do, don’t go to the Walmart,” warns the woman. “Vigilantes took it over. They say they’re in service but to what? Only themselves. They’ll prolly shoot you.”
“Okay–” my mother says. The woman continues, her eyes bulging.
“You know they’re not ‘storms,’ right? They’re Gods. And they’re here to punish us. Death is the law. Those technocrats broke the law when they Bridged. And then…” the woman drops her voice dramatically, “the Gods came. You want protection? I got bike helmets.” My mother politely declines, trades jerky for a faded FEMA tarp, and whisks me out of the door.
“Listen to me,” my mother says later as she wraps a freshly slain doe in the tarp, “We are not being punished. Whatever is happening there–” she waves to some clouds, “is a scientific phenomenon that we don’t understand. It’s our job to stay alive, make friends, and keep each other safe. Got it?”
We round a dead traffic light to the Walmart, still marked by giant white letters and a cartoon sun. I shriek and squirm, afraid of the old woman’s warning. My mother tightens her grip. “You don’t want to rinse for the rest of your life, right?” My armpits prickle at the reminder of what we escaped–a life as a Rinser, indentured to hack surgeons, condemned to a life of stripping techware from the corpses of people like my father who thought they could Bridge on a budget. “Your father as good as sold us to auction when he died. Move.”
She trudges forward, slowed by the deer tethered to her waist, and raises her hands above her head at the sight of two men pointing rifles. “We just need a home,” she shouts. “We will contribute.”
They appraise my mother’s looks, her army fatigues, her oxen strength. The beefy man grins, pushing dimples into his cheeks. “Welcome. I’m Hector.”
“Laila,” she says.
The tall man points a long finger at the deer. “Is this for us?” My mother nods.
“Richard’s our inventory master,” Hector explains. “Nice to have another kid here. Your daughter can play with my twins.” He shifts. Two reed-thin blondes watch warily by the cracked glass entrance.
“Go, Betty.” My mother pushes the small of my back.
“Drake, Cora, this is Betty. Take her to the meal pot.”
Four green eyes stare. I look at my mother for help. Her face says MOVE.
Inside, limited light fades the aisles into infinity. My mother enters chatting with Hector. She swirls her potato soup with a straight back and prim smile, much different from the woman I know, who picks jerky out of her teeth with her pinky finger. I slurp hungrily and strain to listen: he left us in his debt met with she died in childbirth. Their boots nudge under the table.
The second time my mother flees, Hector is with her.
I don’t think of her as “mother” anymore. A mother wouldn’t leave her teenage daughter in the care of a tyrant to be a bodyguard for her boyfriend, but Laila would. Laila did.
When I was little, she taught me a singsong holler in case we ever separated. Throw your voice to the moon, she would say. The moon hides tonight, but a strip of artificial light glows orange on the horizon: Utopion, fortress of cyber simps and the Rinsing future we traded for a life in an abandoned Walmart.
I’m starting to lose her image. I think of a face shape like a grain of rice and then place her long nose and sharp cheekbones. The rest surfaces: a salt and pepper braid, the long and lanky limbs that I grew into over the years.
When the picture snaps into place I release my grief. My shoulders hitch and compress like an air pump as I rip through my rage again and again. I stop when my throat feels like it might be bleeding.
It takes ten minutes to cross the parking lot back to the Walmart. Betelgeuse winks from Orion’s armpit. Still plenty of nighttime to pretend I didn’t sneak off–
Richard waits by the ladder, in his stupid leather bomber. He thinks it makes him look young. “Screeching into the dark won’t bring them back,” he jeers. He places a palm on my shoulder and speaks softly, patronizing. “It must be so difficult, knowing she left because she loves him more than you.”
I shrug off his hand and step back. “Fuck you.”
His face hardens. “After your shift, you can tell Drake why he’ll have to deal with a bunch of drifters, thanks to your noise.” He turns on his heel and saunters back into his kingdom of fossilized abundance, barren to the three of us in its care.
I go to sleep in the morning with an aching throat. In my dream, Laila’s braid snakes around my chest.
I can’t let Hector go alone.
“Betty, wake up. Richard wants to show us something,” says a quiet voice.
You can handle Richard.
“Betty,” the voice whispers. Drake hovers, his blonde hair sticking out in odd tufts. Grey circles hang under his eyes, but he smiles when I stir.
“Asshole,” I croak, rolling over.
“Not you, him.” My stomach feels queasy. Probably slept three hours.
Our footsteps echo down the yawning aisle. This place used to be a bustling holdout for city refugees like me and Laila, but the population dwindled. Since Laila and Hector abandoned us to scout for a safer village, further from Utopion, Richard’s meticulous inventory-keeping has curdled into a pathological tyranny. People would rather risk an encounter with a Godstorm or a Bridged goon than spend another winter inside this fucking Walmart.
Cora waits with crossed arms in front of the garden center. She looks bonier than usual, her flaxen hair dark with grease at the roots. As a kid, Cora was more likely to read the label on a bottle of nail polish remover than Where The Wild Things Are. She crafts chem weapons from the household cleaners aisle, and Richard loves her for it. I asked her once why he needed so many bombs, and she told me to shut up. We don’t talk much.
“New art?” Drake asks, pointing to an outline of a black flame licking up her shin.
“Yeah. Like it?” Cora says.
“Your lines are getting cleaner.”
Cora looks like she might snap but a dim light clicks on, and her face glazes into a mask of nonchalant obedience.
“Good morning!” Richard hails, jingling his key ring and clapping Drake on the shoulder. His eyes narrow at the bulk. “You need to be careful with the weights, Drake. Without adequate protein you could lose muscle tissue.”
“I’ve got some powder,” Drake says and winces.
The corners of Richard’s mouth drop, forming two deep vertical lines. “From where?”
“It was our dad’s,” Cora says.
Richard pinches the bridge of his nose. “When I was the general manager here, I witnessed unfettered gluttony. Satiated want, nary a need fulfilled. Do you see what we have now?” He gestures to the shelves around us, partially stocked and under lock and key. “America’s most humiliated store, providing life in the crumbles of a fallen empire. We consume only what we absolutely need, dosed at the appropriate time. This way, we last forever. But we die when people–” he glares at Drake, “–take.”
“It was just some old powder,” Drake mutters, looking at his feet.
My stomach rumbles. Richard smiles. “I wanted to show you the bean sprouts. We have healthy, germinating pods. I thought we might celebrate with a fried Spam breakfast–yes Betty, I still have some–but I think it best for all of us if you two–” he glares at me and Drake, “–experience need over want.”
Drake and I share complementary duties to uphold Richard’s vision of a well-supplied ghost town: I am the lookout, Drake is the muscle. Most drifters emerge from the forest’s edge, where it meets the field of scrubby grass at the back of the building. They’re rarely strong women with daughters and deer. From the roof, I blow my whistle at the sight of wide, scared eyes. Dirty children. Dogs.
Hungry and exhausted, I almost miss the movement at the tree line. Two drifters hesitate for a moment at the exposed field, and then start to run toward us. Their movement is strange, hobbled; the larger person is clearly supporting the smaller. An adult and child.
Drake sprints out to them and makes a show of shouting “Don’t come closer, turn around!” He shoves them, makes it look like a rough-up, but when they part the vagrants have a bulge under their coats. Drake has smuggled them food, probably more contraband from his stash. He waits for them to reach the tree line. I follow his return to the building, and a glint in his path catches my eye, a sparkle on the concrete. Right under his foot. Before I can shout a warning, the air around him cracks in an explosion of dust.
I scramble down the ladder in seconds but it feels like hours until I reach Drake’s unconscious form, his mangled, gummy face. Behind me, a door slams.
“Help me get him inside,” I say, reaching for his shoulders, but Cora grabs my arm.
“See those crystals? Don’t fucking touch them.” Cora takes Drake’s legs, her face tight with panic. “Richard made me make it–I told him it was volatile, dangerous.”
We rest Drake on a tabletop stuck with faded price tags and clean him in silence, avoiding his left eye, which looks like a cherry-colored glob. “Cora,” I point.
“Ruptured globe,” she says. “We can’t save it.”
She glances over her shoulder before answering. “Richard,” she whispers. “Wanted me to make this explosive. TATP. It isn’t safe. Anything can set it off: friction, fire, a heavy fucking footstep,” her mouth twists as she breathes through a sob, forcefully steadying her hands.
“Can’t you fuck it up on purpose? Blame a lack of supply when shit doesn’t explode? He’s obsessed with scarcity, he’ll buy it.”
Cora pauses her dabbing, folds the square of cotton, and resumes her work, patting Drake’s cheek with the unbloodied side. “Maybe.”
I can hear him as he approaches. Pop, pop. Richard picks his teeth obsessively, has been hoarding dental floss since day one. He acts disgusted when I floss with my hair–a trick Laila taught, our thick Lebanese mane has its uses–but I know he’s jealous. One day he will run out of floss, and then what? He’s balding. And he’s not using my hair.
At mealtimes, I favor the table facing the entrance so the sun can hit my face as it sets. The light casts a golden beam on the broth’s surface, swimming with deer gristle and wilted greens. While Cora and I stabilized Drake and bandaged his ruined eye, Richard cooked, announcing that he would make a nourishing (code for “includes animal solids”) stew to soothe us from the day’s trauma. He never addressed the cause of the trauma, why the TATP was in Drake’s path to begin with.
“It’s not poisoned,” Richard says, reading my mind, and to prove it he steals one of the few chunks of meat with a pocket knife, smacking his lips at the taste. I snatch the bowl before he can take any more and slurp half in one gulp, suppressing a gag reflex as a squiggle of cartilage tickles on the way down. A punch of flavor hits my nose; Richard pulled from the Sazón reserve as a special occasion. I stifle a moan. I haven’t tasted salt in months.
Richard sucks on the floss string before storing it in his pocket, and drops into the chair next to mine, leering. “Good, isn’t it? Perhaps a little thin?”
I cross my arms. Richard has little patience for silence. He’ll leave soon enough.
“I think it’s time for you to come with me on a hunt. Teach me some of your mom’s tricks.”
“What about my guard job?”
“We’ll be fine for half a day.”
“How do I know you won’t try to kill me like you tried to kill Drake?”
After a moment of surprised silence, he scoffs. “That was a freak accident.”
“Freaky in that it happened right after you got mad at him.”
“I wanted to test the strength of the explosive. I forgot I left it there.”
“Why do you need explosives?”
“In case you haven’t heard, Betty,” he fake laughs, “Immortal cyborg people are fighting sentient storm demons! Might be nice to have defenses!”
“I don’t trust you.”
“But you like that, don’t you?” He nods to the bowl, halfway to my mouth. “We’ll leave in the morning.”
Dawn breaks in a cold, heavy fog. “Nice braid,” Richard greets.
“Give me the bow.”
“You’ll get it when we have a shot,” he says, hitching it over his shoulder.
“You lead the way, then.” I tuck my braid into the collar of Laila’s fatigues. They fit surprisingly well. Did she leave these knowing I’d grow into them? My eyes sting and I look at my feet. Richard will not see me cry.
We walk for thirty minutes along a murky canal, until the pavement gives way to scattered trees. Laila used to call the leveling of our population silver lining when it came to a hunt. You didn’t have to go far to catch dinner.
“Here’s good,” I say, finding a familiar silhouette of maples, jutting out from a slight crest in the ground. “Can I have the bow now?”
I hear it thud to the ground.
Long fingers lift my braid out of the collar, leaving a cold pocket on my neck to join the sudden chill in my spine. “You look like her.” His fingers dig into my collarbone. “I feel like we’re out of calibration, Betty. Let’s sit awhile.”
I spin and face him. He still has a few inches on me but his shaved neck looks weak and wrinkled, and he knows it. He knows his teeth will rot first, he knows his power wanes. I almost pity him, but his grip is unwavering, pressing me toward the leaf covered ground. “They would not have left if they did not trust me,” he murmurs, tucking a strand of loose hair behind my ear.
We’re stuck in limbo, halfway to the ground because my knees refuse to bend. His face whitens, seconds from snapping. I want to claw at his eyes, but I take a breath instead. Drop my shoulders, unclench my jaw, act calm though my heart is a stampede, and swerve suddenly, clamping my lips over his ear. Laila’s face bursts into my vision, and I scream so loud that she could hear me from the moon.
Richard falls back, clutching his ear. I snatch the bow from the ground and nock an arrow, just as an object collides with my nose in an explosion of white. The arrow releases and for a moment I see my face mangled like Drake’s, but the powder melts sweet on my tongue. My skin feels whole and smooth.
“You–” Richard rattles. He blinks through the white haze of Cora’s fake bomb. I see his slumped form, the bloody stomach. Adrenaline-light I float over to him and wordlessly yank the arrow, forcing him to crunch forward, howling.
“Cora tricked you. Shouldn’t have maimed her twin.”
“That was an accident,” he bites, teeth shining and bloody. “I only wanted to keep you–”
I shove my hand in his pockets, extracting his ring of keys. “Goodbye, Richard.”
Laila served in the Marines. I once overheard her tell Hector that her motivation for getting pregnant was mathematical; to add a life to the world, for all those she had taken. She was tidy about death. Laila would not have left Richard to suffer, she would have broken his neck. I’m not Laila.
My reflection greets me as I pound across the parking lot. The braid that hangs by my waist is covered in confectioner’s sugar, as if the hair was salt and pepper gray.
I hear the side door crash open. “So he tried it,” Cora says in a shaky voice, eyeing the splashes of white powder on my fatigues. “I used a box of Domino.” Her gaze flicks to the bloodstains on my forearm. “Is that…deer blood?”
I shake my head. Cora exhales, her whole body relaxing.
“Richard tried some shit. There were consequences.”
She grimaces. “I’m sorry.”
“Did he ever get creepy with you?”
“Not like that. He was awkward around me, like he wanted to be my dad.”
“And he wanted his Laila,” I shudder. “Well, he’s either bleeding out or dead now.”
“Damn.” Cora offers her hand. “Did you get his keys?”
I jingle the ring. She smiles, swiping a quick finger across a splotch of sugar on my chest. I never realized how exact our height was. An odd, warm feeling swoops across my stomach as she sticks her finger in her mouth.
Under the weak light of a solar powered lamp, Cora’s pale eyes gleam. She catches my stare and raises a brow, a slight smirk kicking the corner of her mouth. “Yes?”
“Nice shirt.” Normally Cora cycles through black or white t-shirts riddled with holes, but tonight a cobalt blue tank top hides her thin frame, setting off the yellow in her hair. I point at her left bicep, where a bandage conceals fresh ink. “What’s this going to be?”
“Today’s date. Fuck Richard to hell.”
Drake gingerly turns his bandaged face to me and asks, through a mouthful of canned spaghetti, “Why aren’t you eating?”
At the question, my face burns. I don’t get it either; I should be starving, but my mouth is dry. I am suddenly aware that it has been a few days since I have bathed. When has that ever mattered? “Not hungry.”
“He would have killed you,” Cora says, patting my knee. “Try not to feel too guilty.”
“Yeah,” I agree, while a swarm of bats takes off in my stomach. Laila slides into view, again, as I twirl my fork in the pasta. It’s the day we arrived and she’s stirring her potato soup, smiling at Hector from across the small table.
“Would you ever want to go back to the city?” Cora asks.
I smooth four grooves into a spongy meatball with the back of my fork, and watch it bounce. “No, for two reasons. One, Hector and Laila might come back–”
“–it’s been a year–”
“–and two, someone could recognize me. My dad made a lot of enemies.”
“You think? It’s been almost a decade,” Drake says.
Popping open a can of Spam, Cora says, “I say we eat through Richard’s stock, take what we can trade, leave a note, and get the fuck out.”
Drake shrugs. “Maybe I could get a new eye in Utopion.”
I stare at their two stupid faces, identical in longing. It’s our job to stay alive, make friends, and keep each other safe. “You really want to live in a slum?”
Cora spreads her arms. “You really want to die in a Walmart?”
Katie Kopajtic lives in the Lower Hudson Valley with her wife and two pets. Her other published work can be found in Catapult, Electric Literature, Peach Mag, and in the upcoming issue of the Cream City Review.
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